Changing Culture: 5 Principles for Interdependent Leadership

Changing Culture: 5 Principles for Interdependent Leadership

Leading & Managing Culture Change Starts With a Shift in Thinking — Toward More Interdependent Leadership 

In our complex and interdependent world, collaborative work across boundaries is increasingly seen as a requirement. But collaboration in most organizations isn’t a natural act. A shift in thinking — alongside a change in behaviors — is usually needed for genuinely collaborative work.

History and experience suggest that accepted change management techniques aren’t up to the task of transforming the way we work. What’s needed is a culture change process that combines leadership strategy with business strategy. Changing culture is about changing minds and interdependent leadership.

We recommend an approach to organizational culture change that’s based on 5 principles, 4 phases, and 3 types of leadership culture, moving toward an interdependent leadership culture. Let’s look at each in turn.

Leading or Managing an Organizational Culture Change?

5 Principles to Know

Transforming your organization isn’t simple, fast, or easy. But based on our decades of research and experience, here’s what we know about leading or managing culture change at an organization.

1. Culture change is a guided, public-learning process.

People can’t simply be “managed” into change. Rather than change management, what’s required is change leadership. And to truly lead organizational culture change, you need guides who become trusted partners, helping to steer change and engage everyone in a learning process.

Public learning includes truth-telling, revealing mistakes, admitting when you don’t have all the answers, and sharing confusion and even uncomfortable emotions. This is an inside-out experience of our imagination, emotions, and human spirit. To succeed, you need change-capable leaders.

2. Executives must do the change work first.

Executives must lead by engagement and example in the transformation process. Senior leaders must own and model the new behaviors before engaging numerous key leaders in the change process.

3. Develop vertical capability.

Dealing with the increased complexity across organizational boundaries and market systems requires maturity, moving over time toward an interdependent leadership culture. We call this the vertical development framework for changing leadership culture. This allows people to grow increasingly capable of sophistication in the face of complexity.

4. Leadership culture changes by advancing beliefs and practices simultaneously.

Best beliefs drive best practices drive best beliefs. Like an infinity loop, beliefs and practices are mutual and interdependent. They should reinforce one another for success.

5. Managing culture change is a learn-as-you-go process, embedded in the work of the organization.

Leaders need to learn new beliefs by inventing and testing new ways of working together. Culture work is just as important as the organization’s focus on technical systems and processes. Culture development is the work, not a separate “training exercise.”

Based on these 5 principles, we’ve seen executives, leadership teams, and entire organizations “grow bigger minds,” creating an organizational culture capable of learning, changing, and succeeding together, interdependently.

Managing Culture Change: 4 Phases (Not 4 Steps)

Phases for Reinforcing Change

Our approach to leading and managing organizational culture change is focused on growing bigger minds and fostering the thinking that allows for creative collective action in the face of complexity. Based on the above 5 principles, we use 4 broad, overlapping, and reinforcing phases.

Phase 1 — Discovery Learning: Determining Willingness

What’s the feasibility of entering the culture-change process? This is a mutual learning phase between our organizational leadership experts (as facilitators) and our clients (as change agents and organizational leadership).

It begins with an assessment of the current level of leadership culture (is interdependent leadership present, or not yet?) and a look at the capability required by the business strategy. Does your organization know how to create a strong leadership strategy?

Phase 2 — Players’ Readiness: Developing Understanding

What are the long-term implications of integrating a new culture into the organization’s work? What is the senior leadership team’s ability to engage in the change process? It requires a commitment to participate in public learning. Consider a partner with expertise and experience in senior leadership team development.

Phase 3 — Game Board Planning: Framing the Change Process

What does leading and managing the culture change look like? How does interdependent leadership play out in business and leadership strategies, the learning process, and organizational work targets? What are the beliefs and behaviors required? As senior leaders’ understanding of the change process grows, they’re better able to frame the change challenge and engage other leaders.

Phase 4 — Playing the Game: Building Capability

Once senior leadership has internalized the change work and discerned the way forward, they begin to spread the new culture into the broader organization. The same beliefs and practices that moved the leadership culture at the top are taught, practiced, and required elsewhere in the organization.

These 4 phases aren’t simple. Many traditional step-by-step change management methodologies regard human beings as things to be managed. Yet people aren’t things. They’re complex beings with minds and imaginations and beliefs. They have to engage and participate in order to learn and change.

That’s why this work isn’t for everyone. But if the senior leadership team is fully engaged and aligned, they become adept at their own collaborative learning. Then the senior team is able to immerse larger numbers of leaders from across the organization and develop toward a critical mass for enterprise-wide change.

Our goal is eventually to involve everyone in the organization in a learning process that creates trust, ownership, and increasing forms of interdependence.

The Most Mature Organizations Have an Interdependent Leadership Culture

Organizations that grow from dependent to independent to interdependent leadership cultures become increasingly capable of creative action in the face of complexity. What are the differences between them, and what do we mean by interdependent leadership culture?

  • Dependent: A form of leadership culture or mindset based on conformance or tradition.
  • Independent: A form of leadership culture or mindset based on heroic individual achievement.
  • Interdependent: A form of leadership culture or mindset based on the collaboration of otherwise independent leaders and groups.

Learn more about how you can identify your organization’s leadership culture and maturity level, and determine if you’re ready to embark on leading and managing culture change at your organization.

Ready to Take the Next Step?

Is your organization growing in maturity toward an interdependent leadership culture? Partner with the experts in our Organizational Leadership practice to assess your culture and ensure it supports your business strategy.

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June 21, 2022
Leading Effectively Staff
About the Author(s)
Leading Effectively Staff
This article was written by our Leading Effectively staff, who analyze our decades of pioneering, expert research and experiences in the field to share content that will help leaders at every level. Subscribe to our emails to get the latest research-based leadership articles and insights sent straight to your inbox.

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